It's hard to believe that the 2013-14 season is over. It's been an amazing season in so many ways.
The competitive balance was crazy with so much parity from team to team. That was definitely demonstrated in a great Stanley Cup Final between the Los Angeles Kings and New York Rangers.
I also loved how there were a lot of players who unexpectedly stepped up this season with different roles at different times. The emergence of some of these players made this season great, and there's a whole new list of unheralded players looking to make their mark next season.
The New York Rangers trail the Los Angeles Kings 3-1 in the Stanley Cup Final with a chance to extend the best-of-7 series Friday at Staples Center (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, RDS). They barely held on to win 2-1 in Game 4 on Wednesday, but there were some positive things for them to take away that could help them keep their run going.
Put bluntly, they need to do against the Kings what L.A. has done against everyone all season long.
The Kings are a power/skill team; they're almost like a hybrid NHL/NFL team because they can just dominate you physically with all four lines and their three defense pairs. But they're a faster team than people recognize. Marian Gaborik is a speed merchant and Drew Doughty can fly. They're also willing to go to the net and defend the front of their own net. They do those things consistently.
The Los Angeles Kings have a 3-0 lead against the New York Rangers in the best-of-7 Stanley Cup Final entering Game 4 at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, RDS). There have been a number of players contributing to their great run through the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but with the Kings on the verge of winning the Stanley Cup for the second time in three seasons, you have to look at the man in net, Jonathan Quick.
I really think he's been awesome. I've said it all the time for the past two years: Jonathan Quick has been the best goalie in the world. It's his unique combination of talent, skill, athleticism and flexibility that has made him great. Most important, he's mentally stronger than any goalie on the planet.
Game 3 of the Cup Final was his first pro start at Madison Square Garden. He hadn't played at MSG since he was in peewee playing for a minor hockey team and family come down from Connecticut to watch. He grew up idolizing the Rangers and Mike Richter. With all that, he put on a show in Game 3. He made body-based saves and compact saves because his timing and positioning were excellent. When he had to go to his tool kit, he did. That's when he brings out the superhuman flexibility and athleticism and net instincts. It's an amazing combination.
We're one game into the 2014 Stanley Cup Final and the New York Rangers and Los Angeles Kings certainly didn't disappoint. Game 1 was an excellent matchup in which the Rangers dominated early before the Kings took over. Despite the disappointing 3-2 overtime loss, the Rangers have plenty of positives to take away from Game 1 and can still be a force in this series.
You couldn't have scripted a better start for the Rangers. The Kings were on home ice and with the Rangers' five-day layoff I was wondering how they would be coming out of the blocks. They came out playing a turbo pace with the speed game they showed against the Montreal Canadiens in the Eastern Conference Final. New York was winning races, had a lot of support and was first on pucks; its forecheck was suffocating and forced a lot of turnovers. The Rangers generated a lot of scoring chances early on, each goal a direct result of that speed and puck support.
We're finally here. The New York Rangers are about to face the Los Angeles Kings in the Stanley Cup Final, and it's a really intriguing matchup between two great teams.
Here are the important matchups between these teams, as I see them.
With the Rangers, what really sticks out for me is the speed with which they played in the previous round against the Montreal Canadiens. Despite having all that speed, they also scored goals in several different ways. That was really impressive, and the tempo they played at forced Montreal to play a fast game, which made the Canadiens very uncomfortable.
With Los Angeles, this is a different recipe than what the Kings were doing last year. They have a lot of their core pieces in place and their coaching staff is intact. But there's always a unique recipe every year. One thing we've seen them do this year is they've had to go to three different Game 7s. That speaks to how strong this team is and how they play a power skill game. Like the Rangers, they also have four excellent forward lines with a lot of strength at center.
How about that double-overtime thriller Wednesday night? It was a great game in which the Chicago Blackhawks extended the Western Conference Final with Michal Handzus' winner in Game 5 against the Los Angeles Kings. The Kings lead the best-of-7 series 3-2.
I mentioned earlier in the week how Chicago made certain adjustments against the Boston Bruins in the Stanley Cup Final last year. The Kings are a very similar team to the Boston Bruins. Chicago knew what it took to win the Stanley Cup against Boston last year and the adjustments it had to make in the last two games of that series. I thought the Blackhawks made a lot of the same adjustments in Game 5 in Chicago.
First of all, their D was involved in the play again, which they need and encourage. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook were excellent, and Seabrook and Johnny Oduya got the party started with early goals. More than anything, they showed their grit against the Kings.
They'll have to do it again in Game 6 at Staples Center (9 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, RDS).
In a surprising turn, the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks have fallen behind 3-1 in the best-of-7 Western Conference Final against the Los Angeles Kings. Game 5 is Wednesday at United Center (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, RDS).
L.A. has won three straight games against Chicago and one thing that is abundantly clear is that perimeter skill players have not been getting any fruits in the conference finals. If you're willing to pay the price to make a play, you'll be able to get points and contribute. If you don't, you won't. It's that simple.
Look at some of the incredible world-class players on Chicago. I've seen Marian Hossa take it strong and take it to the net, but he's been snake-bitten a bit lately. Patrick Sharp, Patrick Kane and some of the other stars on the Blackhawks are faced with a dilemma. It's adapt or go home. They were faced with that dilemma last year against the Boston Bruins in the Stanley Cup Final and they chose to adapt. They were then able to thrive and win the Stanley Cup.
Game 2 of the Western Conference Final between the Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings was really interesting in how it was like two different games. The Blackhawks led 2-0 late in the second before Justin Williams scored to key a run of six unanswered goals for the Kings to tie the best-of-7 series 1-1.
Jeff Carter was a superstar in this game, scoring three goals and adding an assist. The Kings power play was also amazing. But it seemed to be Williams' goal with 1:46 left in the second that turned things around.
I was texting with one of the Kings after the game and I asked him for a couple of keys to that game. As one of the more veteran players on the team, he mentioned that Game 2 featured one of the most energetic and enthusiastic intermissions that they've had in his time there, and he's been there for some time. They felt they had a really good opportunity after getting that late goal in the second. They were very upbeat, evidently, in the locker room and they felt they had to strike. Chicago up to that point was 7-0 in the Stanley Cup Playoffs at United Center and they felt they had to get a stranglehold on that game, which they did.
Chicago took Game 1, but I thought that the Kings played fairly well. I thought they actually played really well, being that they just got out of an emotional series against the Anaheim Ducks and then had to travel for Game 1. If not for Corey Crawford, it could have been a very different game. For Chicago, it's all about Crawford. He's one of the Conn Smythe Trophy candidates right now, just with how well he has played.
The good news for Chicago is it also looks like Andrew Shaw could be back in the lineup for Game 2. He's a very impactful player. He gets in on the forecheck, his skills are better than people give him credit for, he's physical, he's an agitator that can play and he's a 20-goal scorer. I think he'll give them even more depth than they already have.
After blowing a 3-1 series lead and losing to the New York Rangers in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Second Round, the Pittsburgh Penguins fired general manager Ray Shero on Friday. They retained coach Dan Bylsma, but it's clear that this summer is going to be a very interesting one for a Penguins team that has been underperforming in the playoffs for some time now.
I previously mentioned that they were going to have their big, exhaustive internal meeting with co-owners Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle, and team president David Morehouse. They did their full evaluation of the franchise and where they want to go and what they need to do to get there.
The franchise has had a lot of success through a lot of key injuries to a lot of guys, from Sidney Crosby to Evgeni Malkin to Kris Letang to Jordan Staal when he was there. These are all key performers. That being said, the expectation there is to be a Stanley Cup winner or at least compete for a Cup. They won one and lost one in the Cup Final, but since then their playoff performance has left a lot to be desired.
The hockey world was turned on its head this week with the emergence of Anaheim Ducks goaltender John Gibson. At age 20, he is 2-0 with a 1.50 goals-against average and .957 save percentage in his first two Stanley Cup Playoff games. He may have also swung the Western Conference Second Round series against the mighty Los Angeles Kings.
What makes this development so incredible is that most people around Gibson aren't even surprised by what he's done.
This guy is exactly what you're seeing. This is the genuine article, this is what he is as a goalie. He has been that dominant goalie at every level, from the under-17 and under-18 teams with the United States Development Program, right through to Kitchener of the Ontario Hockey League and Norfolk in the American Hockey League. He even led the United States to bronze at the IIHF World Championship last summer.
Game 4 on Wednesday against the Pittsburgh Penguins was a rough one for the New York Rangers, who lost 4-2 and fell behind 3-1 in their best-of-7 Eastern Conference Second Round series.
The Rangers' effort level that night wasn't where it should have been, given the fact that it was a huge game on home ice at Madison Square Garden. I thought the Rangers were pretty listless. They didn't have it, but you've also got to give credit to Pittsburgh's defense, which has suddenly turned into the strongest part of an already-strong team.
That's the best defensive game I've seen the Penguins play in a while, and they did it playing five defensemen after Brooks Orpik was lost to injury.
It's hard to believe that just a few days ago the Los Angeles Kings were trailing the San Jose Sharks 3-0 in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Now they're the hottest team in the NHL, having reeled off six straight wins.
Jonathan Quick has been a big reason why people are comparing this team to the group that won the Stanley Cup in 2012. But the addition of scorer Marian Gaborik gives the Kings a new dimension that makes them especially dangerous.
Quick has been making the stops and Gaborik has been scoring the goals.
Now that we're in the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the matchups are that much more intense. Each team will look to find the best strategy to advance to the conference final, but when you get to this point in the postseason it's generally best not to make too many changes.
Start with the Montreal Canadiens. There will be plenty of talk about how they match up against the physical Boston Bruins, but I think they just have to play their game. I spoke to one of their players and he said they can't be goaded into trying to play more physically than they naturally do. They know they're not trying to "win the physical matchup" with the Bruins. Still, they have to be smart and be willing to pay a price.
I thought Montreal did a great job of attacking from the outside and the inside against the Tampa Bay Lightning. They're going to have to do that and change it up. They can't be predictable in how they attack against Boston.
Let's start by giving Minnesota and Colorado their due. Each franchise has made major strides. I like the way Minnesota handled the adversity of losing Game 5 in Denver. The Wild came back with the right mindset and attitude. Not only were they playing a speed game, but they also played a very physical game. Most importantly, it was a disciplined brand of physicality they brought in Game 6.
Zach Parise had an amazing game with a four-point night. That's what makes him one of the true stars of the NHL. At the same time, the Avalanche got a nice boost from having Matt Duchene back. Now we're going to see a potentially great Game 7 at Pepsi Center. I'm looking forward to it. It's going to be fast and intense.
We're barely a week in, but multiple storylines have developed in the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
You can start with the Dallas Stars. They did a great job of defending their home ice against the Anaheim Ducks. They won those two tough games in their own building, and their stars continue to be stars for them. Jamie Benn started the comeback in Game 4. Who wins a neutral-zone faceoff to himself and scores an unassisted goal? Jamie Benn did, and it was super-impressive to me.
In the bigger context, it was all about the support in Game 4. Cody Eakin scored a huge goal for Dallas, Jordie Benn had an assist, Shawn Horcoff had an assist, and Vernon Fiddler scored a big goal. As great as Dallas' stars have been, the depth guys really stepped up in Game 4 to complement Benn and Tyler Seguin, who have been carrying the Stars all season long.
Every year without fail, the Stanley Cup Playoffs kick off and we see plenty of players and teams step up unexpectedly. It's just one of the many reasons the playoffs are so great.
One of the biggest surprises so far has been all the offense coming uncharacteristically from the middle of the ice. You don't typically see that as much in the playoffs. A prime example of that would be what happened with the Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks through their first three games. The Kings won the William M. Jennings Trophy for allowing the fewest goals this season, but the Sharks are faster and deeper than they've ever been and have been scoring at will. As great as the Kings typically are defensively with Jonathan Quick, that hasn't been the case so far against the Sharks, who did a great job of exploiting the Kings in scoring 17 goals and winning all three games.
San Jose has gained so many odd-man rushes. They're exploiting a lot of missed coverage on the back door and they're making lots of passes across the width of the rink. I just think they had their way with L.A. The Kings don't look like the Kings yet.
We're only two days into the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs and there have already been plenty of memorable moments, not to mention plenty of exciting overtime action. In analyzing the first few games of the postseason, I've come away with a few observations and even more questions.
The first thing I noticed, particularly in the first three games Wednesday night, is how there were a lot of opportunities in the middle of the ice, something you don't typically see in playoff hockey. There were a lot of pinches, including a few good pinches in which the D committed to the right play under the thought their forwards would back them up and support them, which in many instances they didn't.
The Stanley Cup Playoffs are finally here. This is what all the fans love and where the excitement is. Whether your team is in or not, as a fan of the game you want to see the best hockey played. This is where legends are made; it's crunch time, baby.
As a former player, there's nothing better than springtime and being in the playoffs and having a chance to compete for Lord Stanley. With all due respect, and I love all the other sports, this is the toughest trophy to win.
There's nothing better, especially with all the fantastic first-round matchups this year. They're truly awesome.
Some major changes took place this week out West, with the Vancouver Canucks firing general manager Mike Gillis and hiring former captain Trevor Linden as president of hockey operations. It's a big move that will go a long way toward which direction this team goes in. After being the class of the League for a few years, the Canucks do not intend on taking more steps backward after missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs this season.
With Gillis, overall I think we knew the time had come. Something was going to happen. I wasn't sure if it was going to be him and coach John Tortorella, him or Tortorella. Who knows? I will say that I think there were some trades that Mike didn't net great returns on. I would also say the development pool is not where it should be. Their best prospect was Cory Schneider, who is gone. They've also done a great job with Christopher Tanev. Other than that, they haven't had great prospects and that has hurt them.
Overall, Gillis did a lot of great things to. Under his watch, Vancouver won the Presidents' trophy in back-to-back seasons and got to Game 7 of the 2011 Stanley Cup Final. The Canucks' style of play mirrored that of the Detroit Red Wings during that time. Puck possession was encouraged, hockey IQ was rewarded. They didn't have the heavy game like the Bruins had, which led to Boston beating them in 2011. But the Stanley Cup year was one of the most dominant teams we've seen in a while.
With the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs almost upon us, we have a great Wednesday Night Rivalry with the Detroit Red Wings visiting the Pittsburgh Penguins in a potential first-round preview (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN, TSN2).
The Red Wings have made an impressive playoff run despite numerous injuries to their key players. But the Penguins have also lost a lot of man games to injuries. They've had a tough go from an injury standpoint and have received major contributions from numerous places. Sidney Crosby has had an unbelievable season and Olli Maatta has been amazing as a rookie. Marc-Andre Fleury was awesome the other night against the Colorado Avalanche in that shootout win. A guy that doesn’t get a lot of attention in Pittsburgh is Matt Niskanen. I'm not sure why. He's been one of their most consistent players on a team with a lot of excellent players. I love the season he has had. He's gone largely under the radar and has played exceptionally well.
I was talking to Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper the other day and there was just something about the way he conducted himself. It was just him being a human being; so refreshing. There's no yelling or false bravado. It then dawned on me how the way coaches address their players has changed in the NHL.
You don't see yelling or intimidation anymore. You don't even see that from Philadelphia Flyers coach Craig Berube, and he collected more than 3,000 penalty minutes as a player. That's the irony. Look at the job he's done and how he's galvanized that group.
This is how coaches are doing their job in today's NHL. I'm going to get back to Cooper, but Todd McLellan is another guy who illustrates that. And it's working wonders for the San Jose Sharks.
San Jose looks as good as I've ever seen them, which says a lot because they've had a lot of very good teams over the years. Doug Wilson and McLellan and that staff have done a great job.
There are just a few days remaining in the 2013-14 NHL season, meaning just about every game has major postseason implications heading into the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
That's certainly the case with the Wednesday Night Rivalry game this week (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN, TSN2, RDS), which matches a Detroit Red Wings team scrambling to make the playoffs for the 23rd straight season against a Boston Bruins team looking to wrap up home ice throughout the postseason.
With Detroit, you really have to start with Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar. They have been stars down the stretch for the Red Wings. The big point for me with those two is they are not replacing serviceably good players; they have stepped in and tried to fill the void left by injuries to Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, two of the best two-way players in the world.
And for the teams scrambling to qualify for the postseason, certain players have emerged to lead the way.
The Capitals are 4-0-2 in their past six and collected an impressive five of six points in a three-game trip through California. Considering that, it's hard to ignore how Joel Ward is playing. Entering Thursday, Ward had the same amount of goals (22) as Anze Kopitar of the Los Angeles Kings. That gives you some perspective right now for the year he's having.
Perhaps more important, if Washington can squeeze into the playoffs Ward has a history of scoring big goals in the postseason. That's really impressive for someone who is supposed to be a third-line player.
We've reached that time of the season where every game is more important than the last. That's definitely true of the Wednesday Night Rivalry game this week, which will see the Philadelphia Flyers visit Madison Square Garden to take on the New York Rangers in a potential Stanley Cup Playoff preview (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN, TSN2, RDS).
The Rangers are one point ahead of Philadelphia in the Metropolitan Division, although the Flyers have two games in hand. It doesn't hurt that this also is one of the best rivalries in the NHL. These games always are nasty. Definitely no love lost between these two teams and their very passionate fan bases.
The Rangers earned a hard-fought and much-needed win against the Phoenix Coyotes on Monday. Now they go up against the Flyers, who really are coming on. They've got several 20-goal scorers and Wayne Simmonds is having a heck of a season. He's got more goals than Anze Kopitar and Kopitar is a star in this League. Scott Hartnell is doing his thing and Claude Giroux has been great. Vincent Lecavalier is playing better lately and they're getting production from everywhere. I just love what coach Craig Berube is doing with that team and the belief that he's instilled in them.
With the 2013-14 season coming to a close, we can finally take a look at the past five months and really see who has enjoyed a coming-out party in the NHL. There are numerous people who have truly established themselves this year, but for now I'd like to focus on two in particular, starting with Colorado Avalanche coach Patrick Roy.
I just think he's been amazing. Since his team took the League by storm in October, there has been no drop-off in how he handles himself, how he interacts with his team or his level of communication with the staff and the players. You often hear him talk about his partnership with the players; what it means and what it represents. The players are just loving it.
Nathan MacKinnon was the No. 1 pick in the 2013 NHL Draft, but Roy didn't throw him to the wolves. He put him on the third line. There were times he wasn't playing center, there were times he wasn't taking faceoffs. As he's adjusted to the League and gotten better and more comfortable, Roy has expanded his responsibilities. He's done a great job of managing MacKinnon's ice time. Not just with him. I think Gabriel Landeskog has improved dramatically, as have Matt Duchene and Ryan O'Reilly.
I'm really looking forward to the Wednesday Night Rivalry game this week between the St. Louis Blues and the Chicago Blackhawks (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, TSN2). These are two elite teams that have somehow managed to get even better as we approach the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The Blues have been red-hot and goaltender Ryan Miller has made a seamless transition since being acquired from the Buffalo Sabres on Feb. 28. He's been excellent. In talking to general manager Doug Armstrong, he mentioned the fact that the Blues weren't necessarily in the market to get a goalie. They put themselves in the market to get Ryan Miller. That's a very big difference. They weren't just looking to add any goalie.
In getting Miller, the Blues have positioned themselves as a team to make a run. You now have a goalie in the same conversation as Jonathan Quick or Tuukka Rask or Jonas Hiller. Now you get your own super-elite, world-class player, and there aren't a lot of those players out there.
The Wednesday Night Rivalry doesn't get much more intense than when the Montreal Canadiens face the Boston Bruins. It's one of hockey's greatest rivalries, and this week's game, at Bell Centre (7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, RDS, TSN-HABS), will have us talking about an important player who isn't playing.
With the Canadiens, the biggest challenge is getting goaltender Carey Price healthy right now. When can he get back in the net? With Price out, Montreal will turn to either Peter Budaj or Dustin Tokarski against the Bruins.
We might not get the Price-Tuukka Rask matchup we were all hoping for, but there are several great young defensemen I'll be watching in this game.
The NHL Trade Deadline started off slowly Wednesday morning. But when the dust settled, a number of big deals were made that could change the shape of the race to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
It's too early to pick winners and losers, but I really like what the Los Angeles Kings did in getting Marian Gaborik from the Columbus Blue Jackets. Even if he's only at 75 percent to 80 percent of what he's capable of doing, it gives them something they don't have. He's a game-breaker and they don't have that.
With the playoff race in full swing, the Wednesday Night Rivalry game this week features a pivotal Metropolitan Division matchup as the Philadelphia Flyers host the Washington Capitals. Each team has been inconsistent this season, but they’ve also been active at the NHL Trade Deadline, and that could help each team find its stride in these last few weeks of the regular season.
This game is a big one because that division is wide open. As far as the Flyers, there has been a significant improvement in how they defend. They also has haven’t taken as many penalties, and they’re a team that can score with anybody when they are on their game. Obviously, Vincent Lecavalier being back helps. Wayne Simmonds is having a heck of a season, and he and Scott Hartnell are very important players heading into this part of the season and into the playoffs. But I think a lot of it will hinge on goaltender Steve Mason and their commitment to defense.
Mason has had a nice bounce-back season. He had a couple of tough stretches, but all in all I like his season.
This is it: the home stretch. The final few weeks of the regular season are upon us, and it should be an interesting run up to the playoffs and what could be an eventful summer.
When you consider some of the players currently dealing with injuries, as well as impending free agents who could be dealt before the upcoming NHL Trade Deadline, certain teams looking to make a deep playoff run are facing some huge decisions in a short period of time. How they handle those decisions could be almost as exciting as what happens on the ice.
It starts with the New York Rangers. They've been one of the League's hottest teams, but the Rangers are in a really interesting situation right now. Who knows what is going to happen with the contract situations involving Ryan Callahan and Dan Girardi? I played with both of them. Both these guys have earned the right to earn their dollars as potential unrestricted free agents, especially a guy like Girardi.
This week's Wednesday Night Rivalry features a spirited matchup between the Buffalo Sabres and Boston Bruins (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, TSN2). But with Buffalo in the middle of a rebuild it appears that general manager Tim Murray will look to trade franchise goaltender Ryan Miller before the NHL Trade Deadline on March 5 at 3 p.m. ET.
Although Miller won't start against the Bruins after defeating the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday, the speculation surrounding him will be an intriguing subplot in this game.
Right now Murray has a real high price tag on Miller. I spoke to three NHL GMs yesterday, including one that would be in pursuit of him. They said frankly the price is just too high right now. Obviously Murray wants to maximize his return, I don't blame him. Miller has played at a high level this year. In spite of the team struggling, he's been world-class. He was a rock star in the win against the Hurricanes.
After a wild up-and-down tournament that has seen countless incredible moments and more than a few upsets, the gold-medal game at the 2014 Sochi Olympics is finally upon us. It features two of the most talented rosters in the entire tournament as Sweden takes on Canada with the gold medal on the line.
Each team features specific strengths that helped them get it this far and will rely on those strengths to win one last game for gold.
The semifinal games are all set for the hockey tournament at the 2014 Sochi Olympics and feature two of the best international rivalries in the game. The United States will play Canada and Sweden will face Finland, with a shot at the gold-medal game on the line in each.
As a hockey fan, there is so much to love about these two matchups.
For me, it starts with the United States.
I think the U.S. is playing a great style of hockey. They've made a great transition onto the international ice. They're playing with a lot of speed, and that's exactly what coach Dan Bylsma wanted. He talked about that coming into the quarterfinal game against the Czech Republic. They've looked fast and pushed the pace while doing a good job of attacking the middle of the ice.
Based on everyone's preliminary predictions, the gold medal in men's hockey at the 2014 Sochi Olympics will go to either Canada, the United States, Sweden or the host Russians. But there are other countries that could play the dark-horse role.
When I originally looked to pick my tournament underdog that could surprise some people, I originally was thinking Finland, which may have the best goaltending in Sochi. But there's a new underdog I'm thinking will play spoiler.
I'll be keeping an eye on Switzerland. The Swiss can upset somebody. They won silver at the World Championships last year and I definitely consider them a potential surprise. If goaltender Jonas Hiller keeps playing the way he has been playing, that could be a nightmare of a matchup for one of the favored four teams. There's no reason to suggest Hiller won't keep playing great. If he plays at that level, they could break some hearts along the way. That would turn the tournament on its ear.
It's finally here. Many of the world's best players have descended on Russia for the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Unlike the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, games will be contested on the larger international ice surface. There has been some speculation that the larger sheet could hurt Canada and the United States, who finished first and second, respectively, on the smaller surface in Vancouver.
I'm not so sure that's the case.
Given the high-end skill of Canada and the U.S., I wouldn't be surprised to see them both play more of a North American style, just without the silly rough-and-tumble and after-the-whistle stuff we sometimes see in the NHL. Internationally, the officiating standard is much different.
So many goaltenders have posted incredible numbers this season. Semyon Varlamov of the Colorado Avalanche is certainly one of them, having already topped his previous season high of 26 wins, which he set two years ago.
The Russian's great play in the crease hasn't gone unnoticed, as he was rewarded last week with a five-year contract extension reportedly worth $29.5 million. With Varlamov now established as the clear No. 1 in net, Colorado has solidified a core that we could be hearing about for some time.
I spoke to Varly's agent, Paul Theofanous, and he gave me a real good breakdown of what went into signing that extension. First of all, it's the right fit. The Avalanche have been great with him, and they love what they're building there and the direction the team is heading. He's only 25 but has played almost 200 games, which is quite a bit for a young goalie in the NHL.
This week's Wednesday Night Rivalry features two teams in very different places as the Pittsburgh Penguins, who sit atop the Eastern Conference standings, visit the last-place Buffalo Sabres (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, TSN2, RDS2). But there are plenty of compelling subplots to this game that we could still be discussing as the season plays out.
Starting with Pittsburgh, I'm definitely impressed by defenseman Matt Niskanen. He is having a hell of a year. He is a guy who is definitely playing above expectations and he's a pending unrestricted free agent, so he's going to get a lot of money either from Pittsburgh or someone else. Another young defenseman, Olli Maatta, has also been very impressive, especially for a 19-year-old. Both of these players found their game as the Penguins dealt with some major injuries on the back end.
Kris Letang has been injured and hasn't played at the same level, Paul Martin has been banged-up. Add that to injuries to Rob Scuderi and Brooks Orpik and there has been a great opportunity for Niskanen and Maatta to come in and play at the level they have.
Having just attended the two games at Yankee Stadium involving the New York Rangers, New Jersey Devils and New York Islanders, I have to say it was all amazing. There were more than 100,000 hockey fans in two nights at Yankee Stadium. That's tough to beat. It was a great spectacle, it was a great show and I think all three teams played hard. It also provided a glimpse of what certain teams will need in order to make a playoff push before the Olympic break.
Coming out of the Rangers' 2-1 win against the Islanders on Wednesday, I was particularly impressed by the play of goaltender Evgeni Nabokov. If Nabokov can continue to play that way for the Islanders down the stretch and they can stay healthy, it would be huge. He can help provide confidence as well as a veteran presence. That would be big for them to make a push toward the playoffs.
If the Islanders hope to make up some ground during the sprint toward the Olympic break, they'll need that veteran contribution from Nabokov. We're seeing a similar contribution from Nathan Horton with the Columbus Blue Jackets, who have been great since their big offseason acquisition joined the lineup after undergoing shoulder surgery during the summer.
The New York Rangers' 7-3 victory against the New Jersey Devils at Yankee Stadium on Sunday was an entertaining game against a truly magnificent background. Fortunately it was the first of two games that will take place at the iconic stadium as part of the 2014 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series.
The two-game series at Yankee Stadium wraps with a Wednesday Night Rivalry matchup between the Rangers and New York Islanders, their second of three games in a 10-day span. It's a huge game for both teams that will close a historic time for New York sports.
From a Rangers standpoint I love the fact that they stuck to their game plan against the Devils. They didn't start well but coach Alain Vigneault was telling them that he wanted to see them play in numbers, especially defensively. They didn't do that at the start of the game but they made adjustments, goaltender Henrik Lundqvist made his adjustments and they came out flying in the second period.
In a season that has already had so many highlights, it's incredible that we're about to witness three more historic events. After months of anticipation, the Coors Light NHL Stadium Series kicks off on Saturday as the Anaheim Ducks face off against the Los Angeles Kings at Dodger Stadium. The Stadium Series then heads East as the New York Rangers meet the New Jersey Devils at Yankee Stadium on Sunday before going against the New York Islanders on Wednesday.
It's going to be an epic showcase for the sport.
Let's start with New York. I don't know how you can be in New York, New Jersey or Connecticut and not be at those games. As a hockey fan, it's going to be the place to be.
After every Metropolitan Division team except for the Pittsburgh Penguins got off to a tough start, we're seeing a major shift lately. A number of teams in that division have shown some real signs of life, and it could be the New York Rangers who are making the biggest push as we head into the Olympic break.
The Rangers have been a lot better. To me, it all starts with Henrik Lundqvist. Cam Talbot has been amazing and Hank in his last few games has been outstanding. There are parts of his game that he has really built on and he's starting to gain some momentum. If he's able to play like that, it covers some of the mistakes that we've seen from the Rangers.
Staying in the New York area, let's give the New York Islanders some love. How about John Tavares? You want to talk about a guy who has worked and willed himself to become a better player. He's that guy. To me, he's playing on an MVP-type level. Also, Kyle Okposo's game has come a very long way. He's become a top-tier power forward this season. He's put in a lot of work in the offseason and now he's got more of a blend between being a skill player and still being a big-body power forward. Add Thomas Vanek to that line, and you have a trio that people aren't talking about enough.
These teams feature some of the world's best skaters, but goaltending will be the key for both. Washington's Philipp Grubauer has come in and played exceptionally well. He's forced coach Adam Oates' hand to keep playing him. Both Michal Neuvirth and Braden Holtby earned their right to be in the NHL, no question about it. They were both excellent down in Hershey of the American Hockey League when they were there, and Holtby has had huge playoff runs for a young goalie.
But all three Capitals goaltenders are young, and part of being a young goalie is finding that consistency in the League. I know firsthand it's difficult to achieve. Grubauer has come in and outplayed Neuvirth and Holtby, and for now he is the guy.
The Capitals need great goaltending, as does any team. Because Washington really excels on the power play and is so skilled, their 5-on-5 play is even more critical, and their goalie needs to make the saves that allow them to play to their skill set.
Now that all the Olympic team rosters have been unveiled and the 2014 Sochi Olympics are just a few weeks away, everyone has offered their opinion regarding every player included and excluded from the tournament. Naturally, the United States and Canada rosters have received plenty of attention.
With Sochi just around the corner, there are a few things I thought were worth mentioning.
The biggest key to recognize is that this is going to be a very different tournament. In the past, host cities like Salt Lake City or Torino have been picturesque, but hockey hasn't been the main focus. That won't be the case in Sochi. This is Russia. This is the motherland. They're hosting this on their home soil and Russia has a rich hockey culture. I think that is something nobody is talking about enough.
There's so much to talk about as we start 2014, but with the Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic still so fresh in all our minds, let's start there.
The venue itself was beyond spectacular. Everything that the NHL has done with this game so far has been awesome. But Michigan Stadium was at a whole other level. Just to think there was an NHL game played at the Big House with 105,491 fans, it's beyond incredible. It was a sight to behold, a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I don't think anyone who grew up playing the game at any level would have ever imagined they would play an NHL hockey game at the Big House. It was a historic event. The whole world's eyes were on the Winter Classic and that's pretty special.
For the fans who had never seen an outdoor game, they were all blown away. Every fan I talked to was going nuts. They deserve a lot of credit.
It's finally here. After months of anticipation, the 2014 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic is upon us and I personally could not be more excited. There are so many elements that make this event so special, it's hard to go through all of them.
But one thing is for certain, this year's Winter Classic pitting the Toronto Maple Leafs against the Detroit Red Wings at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Mich., is a can't-miss event and one of the truly great spectacles in sport.
Even if you can't make it to the Big House, it really is going to be phenomenal to watch. If you don't have a television, get to the local bar or get to your buddy's place to watch the game.
You've got to watch it, no matter where you are. And you won't be alone. The eyes of the sporting world will be on the Winter Classic. That means people in the Czech Republic, Russia, London, Paris, Schenectady, everywhere. It's not just Toronto and Michigan who will be watching, the whole sports world will be watching the Winter Classic.
It's the holiday season and plenty of people are turning their attention to the great gifts they received this year. With a holiday theme, I have to talk about some of the best gifts NHL fans have seen so far this season.
The best gift the League has received is that all three California-based teams are playing great. It's had a great impact on the state from a business level but also at the grass-roots level. There are a lot of great, young minor-league players now playing in California. That talent in California has been spurred by the great performance from all three California NHL teams.
It's great for the League. And it's not only flourishing on one level in California; it's flourishing on every level. We're starting to see NHL draft picks who are California-born players. That state has 30 million people; Canada has 35 million. It just shows how great this can be for the game as a whole.
They're all proving they can play in the League. It's a limited body of work, but at least from a talent and ability standpoint, they're proving themselves. It just goes to show you how unpredictable sports can be at any position, but especially in goal. There can be an injury or a trade or someone not performing up to their level. That's why I definitely think it's been the year of the "backup."
It was six Wednesdays ago that the New York Rangers last hosted the Pittsburgh Penguins at Madison Square Garden. At the time, the Penguins were flying and slowly starting to get healthy as the Rangers were working to overcome a 2-6-0 start.
The Penguins got off to a strong start that night, but the Rangers came away with a big 5-1 win over their Metropolitan Division rival.
They're back at it tonight, but much has changed with the Penguins.
First and foremost, the Penguins are obviously without a lot of key personnel. Evgeni Malkin is out with an injury, as are each of Pittsburgh's top four defensemen. They're going to have to really buckle down to overcome these losses. I think the onus is going to be on their forwards to continue to come deep in their defensive zone and help out the defense because the blue line is decimated right now. Also, because they don't have Malkin down the middle either, the forwards will also have to make themselves outlets for the defensemen to transition the puck and get going north.
Heading into this season, it's fair to say both the New York Rangers and Anaheim Ducks had pretty high expectations. But these two teams have gone in opposite directions as they've opened the final month of 2013. And the reason behind the Rangers' struggles and Ducks' success can be pinpointed to a few basic principles.
Right now it's a very critical time for the Rangers. It's New York. It's an Original Six team. It's the biggest market in the NHL. The Rangers have got to get in the Stanley Cup Playoffs and their current franchise-record nine-game homestand is the perfect place to start that run.
Unfortunately, they started the homestand with an 0-3-1 record, including a 4-2 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets on Thursday.
They're playing an inconsistent brand of hockey right now. The saving grace for them is they know they can play better, and they're in the Eastern Conference and not the West. My challenge with the Rangers right now, based on their makeup, is I don’t know if they have enough skill to be a purely skilled team and I don't think they're gritty enough throughout their lineup to be able to play a power game. They're caught in between. They're capable of doing both of those things well. But what are they committed to?
This week's Wednesday Night Rivalry game features the Philadelphia Flyers visiting the Chicago Blackhawks (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN, TSN2) in a rematch of the 2010 Stanley Cup Final. It may not have been that long since Patrick Kane scored his historic Cup-winning overtime goal in Game 6, but both of these teams have changed since then.
Starting with Chicago, the challenge will be how long can they go without goaltender Corey Crawford? So far Antti Raanta has played well. The two Stanley Cup-winning goalies on their team, Crawford and Nikolai Khabibulin, are injured, which puts the spotlight on Raanta, the latest player in the pipeline of Finnish goalies. So far he has come in and looked comfortable and played well. He's going to have to continue to play the way he is playing to allow the Blackhawks to play the way they play. The Blackhawks have been able to make plays and not change their style of game because they're worried about getting a save.
The Stars may be stuck in the incredibly competitive Central Division, which boasts top teams like the Chicago Blackhawks, St. Louis Blues, Colorado Avalanche and Minnesota Wild. But Dallas has managed to hold its own and even beat the defending champion Blackhawks on Tuesday night in Chicago. That is impressive, especially when you look at how young Dallas' roster is. But all of Dallas' young players are coming along. From Antoine Roussel, who scored the winner in Chicago on a penalty shot, to Alex Chiasson to Cody Eakin.
Of all the great Wednesday Night Rivalry matchups we've had so far this season, this week could be one of the most intriguing as the Philadelphia Flyers visit Joe Louis Arena to take on the Detroit Red Wings (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN).
It's been a tale of two seasons for both of these teams. Detroit had trouble finding consistency in the early going but has looked very impressive in winning four straight, including resounding wins against the Boston Bruins and New York Islanders, both without Pavel Datsyuk, who has been out with a concussion and is questionable for Wednesday.
Detroit's 4-2 win against the Ottawa Senators on Sunday was impressive for many reasons. It starts with Darren Helm being back after dealing with a back injury that limited him to one game last season. I know coach Mike Babcock is really bullish on Helm. He seems to make a big difference with their team and has seven goals in 14 games this season. He is very fast and adds a lot of speed to that lineup. By the time you complement that with rookies Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar, you're getting young legs that can help an older, experienced Detroit team play a more up-tempo game. They were pushing the pace against Ottawa. They actually out-skated Ottawa in that game, which you wouldn't expect coming into the matchup just based on both teams' personnel.
As you've probably noticed, NHL.com has spent the week projecting the rosters for the top teams at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. The invitations sent out over the summer give some idea as to who will be on these impressive teams. But some players overlooked during the summer have been playing their way into consideration for Sochi.
I think Torey Krug of the Boston Bruins has definitely played himself into the conversation for the United States. Look at what he has done on a back end that features Dennis Seidenberg, Zdeno Chara, Johnny Boychuk and Adam McQuaid. You can argue that Boston has the best blue line right now in the Eastern Conference. And Krug has stepped in and hasn't missed a beat from the way he was playing at Michigan State and at Providence in the American Hockey League. More importantly, he hasn't missed a beat from how he played in the postseason with Boston last season, when he scored four goals in his first run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
With a Czech Republic team that will be relying heavily on veterans, Tomas Hertl of the San Jose Sharks deserves a shot. For him to be as young as he is, doing what he is doing on a top line with a future Hall of Famer in Joe Thornton and an X-factor in Brent Burns, it's beyond phenomenal. We've all seen what he can do and the Czechs could definitely use his blend of size and skill.
Once again, we have another great midweek matchup as the Boston Bruins visit Joe Louis Arena to take on the Detroit Red Wings in this week's Wednesday Night Rivalry (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN). This game features two Original Six teams that have been among the class of the League for some time now.
The rivalry has an added element this season, with the Bruins and Red Wings competing in the Atlantic Division. Detroit has struggled a little since joining the Eastern Conference this season. But any conversation regarding the East has to begin with the Bruins.
I think Boston is the class of the Eastern Conference. One could argue goaltender Tuukka Rask is the most consistent goalie in the League right now. The Bruins have a great defensive corps with a top offensive line that propels them, as well as a third line consisting of Reilly Smith, Carl Soderberg and Chris Kelly that has been excellent. They're very well-coached and play with a lot of structure. That means they are very strong on the puck and on the boards and very solid with puck possession and one-on-one battles. The main thing with them, especially offensively, is their versatility. Offensively, they can score off the rush, they can score off the cycle and their defensemen can contribute to help create goals.
At the quarter-point of the 2013-14 season we've been focusing on all of the big, prevailing stories and trends in what has been a great season so far. But I wanted to bring attention to some of the more unheralded, under-the-radar players who have been excellent this season but haven't really earned enough attention.
It starts with two veterans defying expectations with the Calgary Flames and ends with two youngsters turning heads with the Boston Bruins.
The Flames have faded since their excellent 3-0-2 start. But one thing a lot of people aren't talking about is the play of the veterans in Calgary. I love Sean Monahan and we can talk about how he has been amazing. But I also love the way Mike Cammalleri and Jiri Hudler are playing.
As someone who has played for all three teams, I have a unique perspective on these rivalries.
Personally I think the atmosphere at these games is going to be nuts. If you haven't lived or spent time in the New York metropolitan area, you don't really understand how much people love hockey there. You think it's the Giants, the Jets, the Knicks and everybody else.
Unless you spend time there you don't know how much people really love hockey. We're talking millions of people in the area, from Broadway to Long Beach to Morristown, N.J. The fact that they support three teams within that radius is mind-boggling. It's not just because of the population. It's about the passion.
This week's Wednesday Night Rivalry will be a great one as two of the most talented teams in the NHL face off when the Pittsburgh Penguins visit the nation's capital to play against the Washington Capitals (8:00p.m. EST, NBCSN).
Sidney Crosby has been putting up points at his typical pace, but one of the real stories at the quarter-point of the season has been Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin, who entering Tuesday night was tied with Alexander Steen of the St. Louis Blues for the League lead with 17 goals.
With 40 goals in his past 42 regular-season games, Ovi is really humming along. The key for him is he's scoring in a lot of different ways right now. When you're a goal-scorer, that means you're giving the opposition fits. It makes it very difficult for them to defend you when you're able to score in so many different ways, because it means you're doing a lot of things right without the puck. I like Ovi's game right now. He's scoring from the middle of the ice, he's scoring from the wing, he got a backhand rebound the other night, we've seen him on his off side, he's scoring around the net on little chip-ins.
The Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers aren't sharing precious real estate at the top of the division standings right now, but this rivalry still will be on display when they face off Wednesday (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN, TSN2, RDS).
The Penguins usually are the team with the star players generating compelling storylines, but I think it's the Flyers who actually have one of the great untold stories of the early part of this season.
Things have been tough for Philly, but one thing a lot of people were questioning coming into the season has been answered. And that's the goaltending.
Steve Mason has retooled his game. I have to give Mason credit and I have to give Flyers goaltending coach Jeff Reese credit. I think we all know that Mason is talented and has the gifts to be a top-flight goalie in the League but he hasn't necessarily been the most focused. He hasn't necessarily worked as hard as he can off the ice in years gone by. He hasn't always practiced with the intensity that you need to be an elite goalie in this League. From all that I'm hearing so far this season, he's been doing those things.
Now that the first month of the 2013-14 NHL season is in the books, I'm starting to see the competition League-wide take shape. It might be a little early to predict a Stanley Cup winner, but you can see which teams are emerging as legitimate contenders.
The way I usually identify top teams, especially this early in the season, is by looking at organizational depth. It's not just about which teams have the biggest stars scoring the most goals. You have to take a closer look at the NHL's top teams to distinguish the contenders from the pretenders.
In theory, the stars cancel each other out. I really believe that you can only go deep in the playoffs and have a chance to win or even play for a Stanley Cup if you have depth. That's why the smart teams do a good job of continuing that development of their depth players. They empower their depth players and help them get better. It's a big part of the organizational philosophy. You can't just lean on depth players under the white-hot lights of the playoffs. You can't all of a sudden say, "Hey, fourth line, we want you guys to go out and kill a penalty now."
Michael Frolik and those role players had huge playoffs. Marcus Kruger, Nick Leddy, Michal Rozsival. Each of those guys played a real impactful game. Did anyone project Bryan Bickell to be on the first line? Did anyone think Brandon Saad was going to develop the way he did, or that the Frolik line would be so key? Behind the scenes, they got leadership from veteran Jamal Mayers, whether he was in the lineup or not. A lot of those players who bring intangibles are needed to go deep.
Yes, it's early in the season, but you've got to start finding that early.
Look at the Anaheim Ducks right now. Is anyone demonstrating better organizational depth? Look at their goaltending. Last year, they had Viktor Fasth and Jonas Hiller. Now you have Fasth, Hiller and Frederik Andersen. Oh, and by the way, you also have John Gibson, who is awesome and was named the American Hockey League's goaltender of the month for October. The credit for all of that has to go to the Anaheim organization.
I was looking at the stats page on NHL.com earlier this week and couldn't help but notice two very familiar names right at the top: Sidney Crosby leading the League in points and Alex Ovechkin leading the League in goals.
Ovechkin has since been overtaken by Alexander Steen of the St. Louis Blues, but it was nice to see the two biggest names in our game back on top, especially when you consider the noticeable lack of buzz surrounding these two players last season. With Crosby rehabbing from injuries and Ovi off to a slow start that saw him score two goals in his first 10 games, the narrative had switched to how the Sid vs. Ovi show was a thing of the past.
I can see why people were saying it. Sid was banged up and battling the health challenges he had, and Ovi had lost his way. At the end of the day, the fortunate and unfortunate thing about our business is it is performance-based. That's what it is about. People look at numbers and interpret them how they want, but I don't always believe that numbers tell the whole story. I believe it's more about the process. Sometimes you can have the right process and for an extended period not have the numbers. Then you get discouraged because people say you're not producing.
That process has helped the two biggest names in hockey get back on top. And we're all the better for it.
The last time the Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins faced off, the Bruins were advancing to the Stanley Cup Final after sweeping the Penguins in the Eastern Conference Final. It was quite a moment for a Boston team that looked unbeatable after outscoring Pittsburgh 12-2 in the series.
The Penguins will get their first shot at redemption as they host the Bruins in this week's Wednesday Night Rivalry game (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, RDS2) -- or as some might call it: the Iginla Bowl.
There are plenty of great storylines to follow early in the 2013-14 NHL season. A number of teams and players have been getting lots of attention, and deservedly so, for their great performances so far. But there are a couple of teams in particular who I actually think might not be getting enough attention.
I was thinking about this Saturday when I spoke to Joe Thornton of the San Jose Sharks after his team's 6-3 win against the Calgary Flames. Joe was telling us on "Hockey Night in Canada" how impressed he was by that Flames team. Two nights later, Calgary scratched out a big victory in Los Angeles against the Kings.
Calgary started its current five-game road trip 1-3-0, so the question is, "Are they for real?" You know what? I think that their approach is for real. Sean Monahan, their first-round pick, has been awesome. But more than anything they're a team that competes hard and plays an honest game. They're starting to believe in themselves. It was doom and gloom in Calgary last season, but now these guys are having some success. They're starting to believe in themselves. Much of the focus early this season has been on the Colorado Avalanche and their incredible turnaround. But the Flames are also worth a look.
This week's Wednesday Night Rivalry game features two teams that have competed in countless classic games through the years. Whether it was in the Adams, Northeast or Atlantic divisions, the Boston Bruins and Buffalo Sabres have always been a great matchup.
They're likely to engage in another great game Wednesday night. But in the big picture, these are two teams in very different places. And if the Buffalo Sabres truly want to turn things around for their franchise, they can take a hint from the Bruins.
I really like what I've seen from the Bruins. The thing that impresses me most is that they play the same way every night. From night to night, the Bruins have an identity to their game. They check well, they're physical, they're smart, they work hard. They're a disciplined team for the most part. But in addition to that, Tuukka Rask has been excellent. You put all that together and that is why they continue to have success.
In a busy summer packed with big trades, two of the biggest deals involved goalies moving from the Western Conference to the East. As a goaltender myself, I couldn't help but take a long look at Cory Schneider and Jonathan Bernier.
Both of these guys are high-quality goalies and they're great people. I've gotten to know both of them quite well. One of the things I like about both of them is that they put their time in. They went to the American Hockey League and became dominant there, and they've earned the right to be in the National Hockey League. They've also both been patient. Bernier sat behind Jonathan Quick in Los Angeles and Schneider sat behind Roberto Luongo in Vancouver. Now Bernier is with the Toronto Maple Leafs and Schneider is with the New Jersey Devils, two teams going in opposite directions so far in 2013-14.
It's still too early in the 2013-14 season to really pass judgment on any players or teams. But it's impossible to have a discussion of the National Hockey League's early-season disappointments without mentioning the New York Rangers, who have gone 1-4-0 to start the season and have a League-worst minus-16 goal differential entering action Tuesday night.
With four games remaining on their crazy nine-game season-opening road trip, the Rangers must turn things around. And they're going to get a great opportunity to do that against the Washington Capitals, a team they eliminated in the first round of last year's playoffs.
I've spoken to several guys on the Rangers and their biggest hurdle is they didn't get a regular training camp. While Madison Square Garden was being renovated, they were in Banff, Alberta for camp. They had tons of travel through the western time zones and they played their preseason games out there, so they never felt settled. They just felt like they were displaced. Also, they're playing a different style right now that they're not quite used to.
This week, I was able to sit down with Hockey Hall of Fame goaltender Patrick Roy, who as coach of the resurgent Colorado Avalanche is one of the great stories in the opening days of the 2013-14 NHL season.
He was great to talk to, and one word I would use to describe him would be "focused." Focused on his responsibility, which is coaching the Colorado Avalanche. It's not about him. He kept using the word "partnership," that he's in a partnership with the players. He's not above them, they're not above him. He's trying to help them improve. He wants to help them be as good as they can be. He was adamant about the fact that he views it as a partnership. That really impressed me.
And that message is being received loud and clear.
This week's Wednesday Night Rivalry doesn't just feature a classic matchup straight out of the old Norris Division. It also features two of the best teams in the NHL as the Chicago Blackhawks visit the St. Louis Blues (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN).
Both these teams are off to good starts, but I'm especially curious about St. Louis. The Blues do a lot of things well to be a successful team in the League. The question is how close is this team to taking the next step? I believe the Blues are much closer, but where are they now in relation to the Los Angeles Kings or the Blackhawks? We just might find out Wednesday.
A major key will be the play of goaltender Jaroslav Halak, who I expect will have a nice bounce-back year. He spent a lot of time in St. Louis working with their trainer trying to rehabilitate his injuries and get into better shape. Hopefully that will serve him well.
After all the waiting through the summer and training camp, the 2013-14 NHL season is finally here. And while many fans are just happy to have meaningful hockey to watch, the first week of the season can actually be pivotal for certain teams and players.
If you get off to a good start, you're feeling good about your team. It's just the vibe, just a feeling. Any athlete will tell you, especially one in a team sport, that there's nothing like getting on the plane or bus after a victory. Taking that feeling early, knowing how you got that victory, makes all the difference in the world going forward.
Enjoying that feeling right out of the gate is important.
This holds especially true for the New York Rangers, who are going to play their first nine games on the road during the last stage of the renovation at Madison Square Garden. That's going to be a huge challenge, but it's possible for them to enjoy great success on that brutal trip. Just look at the Chicago Blackhawks last year.
The first Wednesday Night Rivalry game of the 2013-14 season features the Buffalo Sabres at the Detroit Red Wings, two teams that are in very interesting situations.
The expectation in Detroit is always to compete for a Stanley Cup. So you have to look at some of the additions they made this summer. They brought in Stephen Weiss, who was highly coveted in the offseason and played in the Ontario Hockey League for Plymouth, which is about 20-30 minutes from downtown Detroit. He's another center that can make plays, distribute the puck, be a pass-first guy.
I thought Rask was amazing in Game 5, but he has to be all-world in Game 6 on Monday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, RDS). You can expect the Chicago Blackhawks to be unbelievable knowing that the Stanley Cup is on the line. I think Rask is going to have to be unbelievable and steal the game for the Bruins.
Boston as a team has to be really good defensively, and they've kind of gotten away from it in the past couple games. The Bruins have gotten away from some of the little things.
It is not just in the defensive zone, but starting there, it begins with sealing off in front of the net. Sealing out Chicago forwards in front of Rask, and making sure they front those guys, has to be a priority. They can’t allow the Chicago forwards two and three opportunities off an initial point shot or a deflection.
In Game 6 of the 2013 Stanley Cup Final, the Chicago Blackhawks need to play the same game they played in Game 5 and the same game they played in Game 4.
No different -- no different offensively, no different defensively. On the offensive end, the hunger they've shown and the willingness to compete they've shown against the Boston Bruins has been remarkable.
You can pick any example from Jonathan Toews, but more importantly it is Bryan Bickell on that line doing exactly what he was doing before the start of this series. That opens things up. I call Bickell a space creator because he opens things up for Patrick Kane and for Toews to be able to make plays.
More often than that, if you look at the goals that line has scored in the past two games, Bickell will be there first and then Kane will follow, or vice versa. My point is, the Blackhawks are getting layered screens and layered traffic in front of Boston goalie Tuukka Rask.
Game 4 of the 2013 Stanley Cup Final must be approached like a must-win for the Chicago Blackhawks.
When you are desperate, you have to do different things and you have to do more of the good things. For the Blackhawks, the first thing I'd say is they need to have 40-50 shots Wednesday at TD Garden on Boston Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask. They can't necessarily be worried about shot quality.
They might not get the ideal shots they want in terms of quality per se, but they need volume shots, shots from every angle, shots from the goal line, sharp angles -- put everything at the net.
Both teams have a lot of guys that are shoot-first guys. I think you can say Patrick Sharp is a shooter, Brent Seabrook is very much a shooter, Zdeno Chara is a shooter. Go up and down the lineup and there are shooters both up front and on the back end for both sides; there are a lot of skilled guys who can score.
Boston has the most goals by defensemen and the most points by a defense corps in the playoffs. That being said, what I liked about both teams in Game 1 is they were shooting to create goals. They weren’t just shooting to score goals.
There are two ways to score goals. You can shoot to score, or you can shoot in a way to try and set up a scoring chance for someone else. I saw guys shooting for the far pad a lot. Sometimes they would take a little heat off the shot hoping that the goalie couldn’t control the puck if it hit his low blocker and spit back out.
You have to look at not only the number of shots they faced, but a lot of those were quality shots. I think Rask had something like 38 scoring chances against. The number of quality chances both guys faced was crazy, and we’re talking Grade-A, point-blank shots.
Look at how talented both the Chicago Blackhawks and Boston Bruins are. A lot of these opportunities are prime scoring chances coming from top guys. I thought both goalies were just outstanding.
First of all, I just love that the 2013 Stanley Cup Final is going to be an "Original Six" series. It is the first time since 1979, so these things are very rare.
If you look at these two franchises and all that they've been able to accomplish, the fact that this is the first time they've met in the Final is crazy. You think of the history of both franchises, and the iconic players who have played in both places -- Bobby Orr is the first one that comes to mind.
It is an unbelievable experience, not only for the players, the coaches and everybody associated with the teams, but the fans and all of us who are fortunate enough to work in and around the game. I think it is going to make for a special Stanley Cup Final.
Looking at Boston, I love the way the Bruins are playing. After they were able to get out of the noose against the Maple Leafs, they've been outstanding. Tuukka Rask has been outstanding the whole time, by the way.
What is so interesting about this Western Conference Semifinal series between the Chicago Blackhawks and the Detroit Red Wings are the similarities between the two organizations.
Chicago has been able to turn its franchise around by emulating Detroit. By that I mean puck possession, good two-way play, making plays offensively, being good offensively, not necessarily running guys through the boards but playing more of a puck possession and skill-type game.
The Hawks rebuilt their team through the draft and with some good trades and those great kids, of course, but it was all with an eye toward playing the Detroit Red Wings' style. Obviously with Scotty Bowman coming aboard as a senior advisor and having his son Stan run the show there as GM, certainly there is a lot of Detroit DNA in the Chicago Blackhawks, and it has shown in how they rebuilt the team and won the Stanley Cup in 2010 and how great they were in the regular season.
The Marian Gaborik trade has really helped the New York Rangers. Gaborik is a premier player and a huge goal scorer, but right now based on the way the Rangers play -- and I'm going to get into that more in a little bit -- the trade has really helped them.
They were short on depth. They have some star players, but the Rangers had lost a lot of their depth up front. Those guys [they got for Gaborik] have come in and played exceptionally well, particularly Derick Brassard. He has been really good for the Rangers, and has helped slot guys in and given them some of the depth they lost when they made the Rick Nash trade.
They did that trade at the expense of their depth, and then Brandon Prust didn't re-sign, Ruslan Fedotenko, who was a good player for them, left, they traded Mike Rupp -- they had some depth on the third and fourth lines last year that they didn't have this year.
There are way more goals being scored off faceoffs in the NHL than ever before.
The Carolina Hurricanes scored twice in the first period Tuesday and both were just seconds after one of the Staal brothers won a faceoff in the Pittsburgh Penguins' zone. The first was a power-play goal, and the second was a thing of beauty. Eric Staal won the faceoff back to his defenseman at the left point, Bobby Sanguinetti, who moved slightly to his right and snapped a shot through traffic for a goal.
Staal won the faceoff and moved to his right to provide a screen. The most underrated part of the whole play was forward Jiri Tlusty bumping Pittsburgh's Beau Bennett right after the draw -- this prevented him from getting out to cover Sanguinetti in time.
A lot of people talk about "puck-possession hockey," especially with the Detroit Red Wings intheir heyday. Well, it is pretty tough to play "puck-possession hockey" if you don't have the puck. It is up for grabs on a faceoff, and you either have it or you're chasing it.
Norris Trophy Erik Karlsson, Senators -- The expectations were low in Ottawa, but Karlsson's play has them in the top eight in the Eastern Conference. He plays a high-risk, high-reward style that's been reaping rewards all season. He has 8 more points than any defenseman and is plus-7 on a team that's a minus-4 in goal differential. His play can take your breath away. He's a patient skater with great hockey sense. His nerves of steel have served him well.
Hart Trophy Jonathan Toews, Blackhawks -- On a loaded offensive team, there are guys with more talent -- Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa -- but the most consistent player is Toews. He can play in any situation. You don't have to worry about him bringing his best effort or taking a night off. He's the league leader in faceoffs (61.5). You need a penalty killed? Fine. You need a goal? Fine. You need someone to defend or hit? Fine. He does it every night and the matchup doesn't matter.
Vezina Trophy Henrik Lundqvist, Rangers -- This one isn't easy to pick. There are a lot of quality candidates -- Tim Thomas, Jonathan Quick, Brian Elliott. This is the best start to Lundqvist's career, but I like his overall game. He's more aggressive. His catching glove is a lot better, he's catching more pucks than ever before. I like the maturity I've seen from him. He's referring to his teammates a lot more in interviews. He's talking about other guys and what they're doing in front of him. It's a sign of maturity. The downside of having to do it on your own is no matter how sick Henrik is, just look at Dominik Hasek, the greatest goalie of all-time, and he couldn't win by himself. When Lundqvist took the podium after the Winter Classic, he talked about the plays his teammates made. This is a whole new level this year.
Rocket Richard Trophy Steven Stamkos, Lightning -- This season, he's shown it doesn't matter who's on his line. He can score in many different ways. You hear people talk about Steven Stamkos, and people always want to talk about his one-timers. This season, I bet only a handful came off that one-timer. That's a key for me. It doesn't matter if he's playing with Martin St. Louis or Vincent Lecavalier or neither of them. He's become a guy who scores goals from anywhere. He has speed and the motivation to keep himself where he is.
John Tortorella, Rangers -- The Rangers have reflected his personality. The team is playing a more honest game, and it's not about superstars as much anymore. It's not about one guy -- it's about the collective. More importantly it's also about the style of play -- they play harder. Marian Gaborik is playing harder. He's scoring in different ways and not poaching for breakaways. He's driving the net, and it's one of the indicators of a more honest game, a game with more effort. Block a slot of shot. They have an identity. They're a four-line team with a lot of guys playing hard every night. It gives them a chance to win.
Sometimes our preconceived notions about players and teams can hurt us when it comes to enjoying the game and seeing who the best players and teams truly are. This was something I first learned about as a teenager, working my way into the NHL.
It's about performance vs. perception.
The biggest thing I had to learn once I started skating in the NHL was the gap between performance and perception. By that, what I mean is there are so many unheralded players. I had to get adjusted. The guys who received all the hoopla -- guys like Doug Gilmour, Eric Lindros and Curtis Joseph -- are completely unbelievably great players.
Then there was a guy like Steve Thomas, who was an unbelievable player, excellent player. I thought he was just as dangerous as those other guys, yet no one ever talked about how great he was or mentioned him in the same breath as the other guys.
Why does that happen? The average person that covers the game or a fan won't see how good a player like that is, or if they see it, they won't accept it. Part of that stems from hero worship. Someone will see a guy like Steve Thomas and think, "He can't be as good as these other guys."
When I ran track in high school, the fastest guy always ran the anchor leg. There were no opinions leading to the decision. It wasn't about where someone was from or their pedigree. It was about who was the fastest, and that person ran the anchor leg. That's how it went every time.
But that's not the case in sports. I had to learn to adjust to that.
The extension of that is, when we watch teams play, we let our perceptions influence us. We watch teams that we've already decided aren't good and think, "This team can't be a good team from here. No way the Wild or Panthers can win. Why? Because we're from Toronto or New York and that shouldn't happen." Who cares if the Wild have the best record in the NHL or the Panthers have been leading the Southeast Division for almost three months?
When people judge players or evaluate teams based on what they want them to be rather than what they are, it hurts them and it hurts fans.
All the while, you end up missing some pretty good things just because it's not what you want it to be. You can't appreciate the performance. Forget players and teams. The same thing can happen with cities, too.
Last year's All-Star Game in Raleigh is a great example. People went into it thinking it was going to be a bad time because it wasn't a traditional hockey city. Yet you had so many people who were out in Raleigh saying, "This is unbelievable, they know the game, they know how to party, they did it right." People got blown away. People were pleasantly surprised.
If they came in with an open mind, there wouldn't have been any unwarranted negativity toward going to Raleigh.
About 15 years ago, people were asking, "Who is this Dominik Hasek guy? I don't like his style or how he looks in the net." I'll tell you right now -- he's the best goalie I've ever played against. He's the most dominant goalie of all time in terms of being able to influence a game by himself. Yet, no one wanted to accept that for a long time.
How does it happen? It's coaches and GMs saying things like, "Well we didn't we earmark him, we earmarked someone else. I can't relate to where he comes from, so that's why I'm not open to accepting that guy has talent. I didn't draft him. A friend from his hometown played with him and recommended him and it wasn't my call." That's why a lot of those guys are like that. They're so resistant. "We got Jack Campbell in the first round. Who's this Richard Bachman guy?" That's not how Joe Nieuwendyk thinks. He's cerebral, open-minded, a Cornell guy. I have lots of respect for him. But oftentimes, that's how people think. It impacts the thought process when judging performance.
Size to this day also influences how a player is judged even if he's performing well. Martin St. Louis is begging for ice time as a fourth-liner in Calgary, now he's an NHL MVP and wins the Stanley Cup and now he's playing nationally for Team Canada, for the same guys who said he was too small, his legs were too short, and he played in college.
Same thing with Tim Thomas, who went to Vermont with Martin St. Louis. "I don't like how he makes saves, he doesn't play like that guy, he's from Michigan." I love when people say he's a journeyman. Aren't we all on journeys? Quite often, that's said in a condescending way. But if it's a guy they like, they change the terminology. "Mike Sillinger, he's a guy everybody wants in their room. He's well-respected, he plays hard, a heart-and-soul type guy. Dean McAmmond, Prince Albert Raiders, high-character guy."
I just don't understand how so many people come in closed-minded when it comes time to judge talent. Far too often that happens when the performance is there. That's why they say perception is reality.
When Brian Burke first came onto the scene in Toronto, he pledged to build a tough team, one that would be able to stand up to anyone physically. That plan didn't work out, however, as the Leafs have yet to taste the postseason with Burke as GM.
This year, things have been different.
There's no unnecessary roller derby on the ice. When Burke first got to Toronto, it was all about truculence. What is this, UFC? This isn't 1974 hockey. The good thing about it is he recognized he was wrong and adjusted. I give him credit. He couldn't put a UFC team together and win. Having a bunch of bruisers who couldn't play the game wasn't helping in the standings.
So Burke made adjustments. He went out and got players with high hockey sense. One of the reasons why the Leafs are scoring more is they think game better. From the top to bottom, the Leafs are vastly improved in the hockey smarts department.
The No. 1 guy to key on is Dion Phaneuf. It's not that he didn't have hockey smarts before, because he had some nice years in Calgary. But he also had some bad ones. To me, what happened, maybe Dion started reading his press clippings. He started to play with a nastier edge that he thought he needed.
In Toronto, his biggest adjustment is he's not running out of position to make plays or to hit someone. That keeps him in better position to defend and attack. His timing is better and his reads are better, and that is having a huge impact on his game and the Leafs' game.
I think the D as a whole is vastly improved and far smarter. I love the move to get John-Michael Liles and I love Jake Gardiner. Their ability to transition the puck is excellent. I love the way the Leafs' defenders have gone from running and chasing to make hits to having D to move the puck. They're making better choices in the O-zone. They're getting shots through, more passes down low and not backing off the blue line like they did in the past. That's been one of the biggest improvements.
Burke has made adjustments from physical to finesse.
Another guy who deserves a ton of credit is Joffrey Lupul. Everyone thought when Burke acquired him, it was just a salary dump. The good thing for him is he didn't pay attention to all that and maybe didn't know how close he was to having his career end. All the working out he's done to get back in shape has made a major difference. I talked to him a couple times before the season and came away very impressed. His mind was in the right place and he's been awesome this season because of it.
Phil Kessel is leading the League in goals, and if you're not watching him, you probably assume it's all off the rush like it has been in the past. I've seen at least six or seven goals this season when he's been down around the net, battling for loose pucks in heavy traffic. He's made adjustments, too.
With James Reimer out, the Leafs' goalies have also found a way to get it done.
I know it's been tough for The Monster, but he's come a long way. I think the expectations were unrealistic for Jonas Gustavsson. The Leafs definitely overvalued him, but so did a lot of teams who were fighting for his services. But I give him credit for starting to find his game at the NHL level. The main thing for him is he's become mentally stronger, but I think he needs to be stronger in the gym. He's just a long, tall, lanky frame. You need to be in shape to bounce back after hard practices and tough games, and there's room to grow in that area. But he's stayed mentally strong during this stretch.
With Ben Scrivens, it's a good situation for him and for the Leafs. To be able to go from the ECHL to the show, it's a good thing. He has made a nice impression. I had a chance to meet him, too. He had a good head on his shoulders.
I think the Leafs can play with anybody. I know Boston has owned them, but the Leafs have a shot tonight. I think the biggest thing for the Leafs is to find that sweet spot in terms of balancing the offense and defense.
The game Saturday night between the Chicago Blackhawks and Edmonton Oilers is a great example of what a young, talented team can do if it isn't in awe of its competition.
The Blackhawks rolled into Edmonton as the League's best team. They were coming off a bad loss to the Calgary Flames the night before, so all signs pointed toward a deep, complete, experienced team rolling through the Oilers. After all, the Blackhawks had just beaten the Oilers 6-3 in Chicago six days earlier.
What exactly is a glue guy? You hear that term a lot from hockey players. Glue guys are the players who aren't necessarily superstars, but are the veterans who can keep a team together by doing the little things that go unnoticed. All of these guys I mentioned aren't just glue guys, but they are producing on the ice as well. There isn't a more valuable guy you can have on your team than a glue guy who can still get it done on the ice.
Sometimes teams are in a rush to get rid of the glue guy, that old, reliable, perfect pair of jeans that have never done you wrong. But before you throw out those jeans and buy a new pair of G-Stars because those are the cool, new, expensive jeans everyone is wearing these days, just remember what happened with the Bruins and Mark Recchi last season and what he meant to that team.
Whether it's finding a restaurant on the road or handling ticket requests from family members, or things on the ice like getting advice on opposing goaltenders or defensemen or how to handle things like a scoring slump, these guys are super important.
There's nothing that prepares you for playing in the League like being in the League, and that's why these guys mean so much to all the young players who are getting to the NHL quicker than ever. The best thing you can have if you're someone just breaking in are guys like this to lean on. A player who is in the middle of a long career is a great resource for a young kid just getting his feet wet.
I would say this to a lot of the GMs and coaches: beware. I know you're itching to show off your shiny new toys -- your brand new pair of G-Stars -- but you still want to make sure you complement these guys with good pros. If nothing else, they are great resources to learn from. If you look at the Cup winners, you have a lot of glue guys that are a part of their team.
Yet some GMs want to throw a ton of money at young guys who are still just RFAs to avoid offer sheets and get them tons of minutes right away. Now you force feed them minutes and they struggle and you're surprised?
These glue guys are a hockey encyclopedia. It's all about the details. Some kids may not want to get a massage after a game or practice. You think Teemu Selanne is doing that now? If Selanne's hip flexors are tight, he's going to take the time to do stretches, then get up on the massage table. It's all about having a maintenance plan, and it's never too early in your career to start that. It's all these little things that help you practice, recover, rehab. They are tools you need to be a long-standing pro.
People think development stops when you reach the pros. Guys that are smart, they get it. Guys like Joe Pavelski spend the offseason working on their skating. It's not about going back to your hometown during the summer and shinnying it up with your friends and laughing. Evgeni Malkin said this year he vowed to be a better pro and spent his summer working his tail off, and he's won a Conn Smythe and Stanley Cup!
When it comes to reaching a point in your career when it's time to start dispensing advice and being an example, everybody is a little different. Some guys are more natural and come out and tell you to focus on this or stop doing that. Some guys are more vocal, but a lot of guys want to see that guys are hungry. They want to see young players come to them and show they have a desire to get better. Just because you tore it up in Lethbridge and Kitchener, that doesn't mean it translates to the NHL. It might not translate to your role or the team you're on. Even if it does, a lot of these guys have knowledge.
Some young guys are receptive and some don’t want to listen. They look at veterans like they don't care, like they have everything figured out. My advice is listen to the people that have done it already. They can help you.
Even if it isn't a veteran player, there are assistant coaches on teams that can give advice on playing today's game too. You don't want to talk to Teppo Numminen in Buffalo? You don’t want to ask Charlie Huddy in Winnipeg about what it was like to play with Paul Coffey? The Devils have Scott Stevens and Adam Oates. That's endless amount of knowledge!
All smart players who have long careers will give credit to the players that helped them along the way. Young guys today should notice that and be smart. There's knowledge to be passed down, and it's right there in the locker next to you.
Let's talk about life as a backup goalie. We've seen a lot who have been outstanding this year, yet fans and even some GMs don't want to give them the proper respect.
Before we get started talking about the guys like Josh Harding, Brian Elliot and Johan Hedberg, let's look at this in a different way.
Would anyone feel comfortable getting on a plane if there was no co-pilot? Does the co-pilot not matter? When you go out to a nice restaurant, do you think there's just a chef? Do you think there isn't a sous chef back there helping the head chef? Since Joe Biden is a just a vice president, that means he's not important?
Let's talk about plays down around the net. If you want to score goals in this League, that's where you need to be. On Tuesday, I think all but three goals were scored from within 10 feet of the net.
Let me start by saying this -- Dino Ciccarelli, Dave Andreychuk, Brendan Shanahan -- I played with them all, and they all can beat a goalie from 30 feet out. But what's most impressive is most of their goals came from within five feet of the net. Tips, rebounds, maybe a nice shot from in tight. When you look at the amount of goals those guys have scored, a lot more can be said for how they scored. It's a great lesson for all hockey players, whether you're a player in the League, you're retired, you're a kid coming up through the ranks or just someone playing in a league for fun -- if you're willing to go to the net, you're going to get your share of goals.
In the NHL, the stars get all the attention. But in reality, every successful team in the history of the NHL has been that way because of contributions from players who don't get as much of the spotlight.
Sheldon Souray, D, Dallas Stars-- Here's a guy who was a reclamation project after being banished in Edmonton. He can still play. People were saying he can't possibly play in the new NHL … that was garbage. Not only does have that big shot everyone knows about, but he's more mobile than people realize. He's really stabilized the Stars' back end. He's totally underrated.
Richard Park, F, Pittsburgh Penguins -- He's always good. He's just a good pro. How did the Islanders let a guy like that go? He's versatile, cheap, a leader and a true pro. The Penguins value him and he's a bargain at $550,000 on a two-way deal. They can play him on the third line, fourth line, power play, penalty kill. He's a very skilled guy and a steal for Ray Shero.
Eric Belanger, C, Edmonton Oilers-- He's been very good and in the same way Park has. He's been terrific on faceoffs, winning 60.3 percent of them. Last season the Oilers won 44.2 percent of their draws, worst in the League. With Belanger in the fold, they've won 50.2 percent. He's also been excellent on the PK. The Oilers are killing 91.4 percent of penalties, fourth in the League, after finishing 29th last year at 77 percent. He's a detailed-oriented, three-zone, high-character player.
Alexander Burmistrov, C, Winnipeg Jets -- He might be the best underrated player in the league. He's the best player on the Jets so far. He has an unbelievable hockey sense, high skill set. He can make plays in traffic or open ice. The kid has no fear. He's still only 20, but here's a guy where if he's on the ice, he jumps off the ice when you're watching.
When it comes to restaurants, atmosphere and just a great place to be, Montreal was one of my favorite cities to frequent on the road.
If you have time, you have to visit old Montreal. You'll feel like you're in Europe, not North America. That's one of my favorite sites, especially during the day time. Obviously the summer is better than the winter, but if you dress for it, you'll be fine.
As far as restaurants, for me, one of the best steakhouses in the League -- top three -- is La Queue de Cheval. It's unbelievable. Great food, sick atmosphere, cigar lounge, great bar -- all rolled into one. It's not your typical steakhouse. If you go there, ask for the owner -- his name is Peter.
There's no denying the skill of Jaromir Jagr. But something people either ignore or don't know about is the man's work ethic.
When we were teammates with the Rangers for two seasons, between 2005 and 2007, we also lived in the same building on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. We didn't commute to and from the rink every day (he carpooled a lot with Petr Prucha), but we drove to and from the practice facility in Greenburgh together sometimes. I got to know him pretty well. He's a different guy -- a somewhat spiritual guy -- but his willingness to work was unrivaled.
Going back to his days in Pittsburgh when he was a teenager, Jagr always was the first guy on the ice. It's easy to assume someone with his talent at that young age might be cocky and act as though he has everything figured out, but that wasn't the case then.
During practices with the Rangers, Jagr usually was the last guy to leave the ice. And even after he left the ice, he would just come back on the ice again after taking off his hockey gear and changing into a track suit. He'd spend hours taking shots on me. He'd ask me how his shot looked. If I told him the puck wasn't coming off his stick hot or the right way, he'd stay there and keep working.
A lot of times, even that wouldn't be the end of it.
There are some players who work out at the practice facility for show, but not only was Jagr a guy who stayed late and worked out and did his own thing, there were times he'd take the 45-minute drive back to the practice facility at night when no one was around and work out and practice some more. The guy is a special player.
When it comes to elite athletes in any sport, whether it's Jagr in hockey or Michael Jordan, Larry Bird or Kobe Bryant in basketball, that's the reason why they stay where they are for so long. While Jagr was sneaking workouts in the middle of the night in Westchester County, a guy like Kobe will have a basketball court built in his mansion. Jordan and Bird were renowned for their willingness to stay late and work on their games. Jordan actually was the first guy to build a gym at his home, and he took the time to learn his patented fade-away jumper from Hakeem Olajuwon. Extra effort usually is a theme with great athletes.
That type of player can be infectious for younger players. They see a guy like Jagr busting his tail in practice after winning all his awards and Stanley Cups and they want to do the same thing. There's nothing bad about having a guy like that on your team, even at the age of 39.
Jagr currently is the ninth-leading scorer in NHL history, with 1,603 points. When he left the NHL three years ago to play in Russia, people on the outside might've thought Jagr was at his end after scoring just 71 points. But that had nothing to do with his desire and willingness to put in the extra work. He was all about that. Playing in Russia was something he felt he needed to do. He's a different cat, and some might think he's not team-oriented because he keeps to himself.
But that's absolutely not the case. I'm just glad I didn't have to be the one who drove him from Manhattan to Westchester when he got the itch to work out in the middle of the night.
At first blush, it's easy to see these bad goals and say to yourself, "I could've stopped that shot." But when it comes to shots from below the goal line, there's nothing easy about playing them for a goaltender.
NHL Network analyst and former NHL goalie Kevin Weekes will be blogging for NHL.com throughout the 2011-12 season. Look for "Weekes on the Web" video and text blog entries Tuesday through Friday on NHL.com home page. You can also find an archive of Weekes on the Web here.
For my Opening Day blog, I went deep to name my "undercover" teams in each conference as the puck is about to drop on the regular season:
Buffalo is my undercover candidate in the Eastern Conference. Oh sure, you say, they spent all that money. But it is more than the money that new owner Terry Pegula has spent. I like the way this team was built this summer.
It is a high skills team that is good at transition, skating the puck or passing the puck out of the defensive zone. This team has a high level of hockey sense, especially adding Christian Ehrhoff to the blue line.
I think the Sabres still need a legitimate power forward to compete for a Cup, but they are more gritty now. There will be a willingness among the Sabres to play a physical game, particularly in the playoffs. When I talk about "gritty," I mean that willingness. There is not a lot of room on the ice to make plays in the postseason. That's why you see bottom-six forwards often succeed and raise their visibility among fans. Those third- and fourth-line guys are accustomed to making plays in traffic. Buffalo will be good in that respect this season.
And listen, Ryan Miller is the best in the business as a goalie. One important factor is he has a proven backup this season to keep him more rested for the playoff grind. Jhonas Enroth played some big games down the stretch for Buffalo last season. I like his game a lot.
The Sabres won't be undercover by April.
In the West, I'm going further off the grid. I like what St. Louis has assembled. They are my undercover team in the Western Conference. They have a ton of skill among the top-six forwards. Chris Stewart is going to be a star in this League; he will score 40 to 45 goals this year.
Add all-star David Backes and the Blues have a double threat at power forward. That will be a nightmare for opposing teams. I honestly think that was a big reason why Boston beat Vancouver for the Cup. The Canucks struggled to handle Nathan Horton and Milan Lucic on the same line. Add Jason Arnott for the Blues and those are some big bodies.
I like Alex Pietrangelo a lot. He is another player who is going to be a big star. St. Louis can make some big noise in the playoffs if Halak plays the way in goal that he did for Montreal during the 2009 postseason. If Halak plays that well, the Blues will be a scary team that no one in the West will want to face.
Question: What could be better than popular NHL Network analyst Kevin Weekes returning to the fold as a regular analyst on NHL Net's "On the Fly" and at all major League-wide events? Answer: Setting up Weekes to blog four times a week–both video and text–for NHL.com. Look for Kevin's insightful and always enthusiastic brand of hockey blogging beginning Tuesday, Oct. 4.
In a special sneak peak of "Weekes on the Web," here are Kevin's video views on Monday's 2012 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic announcement that the game will be Jan. 2 at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia.
Obviously a lot happened in a short period of time. At the end of the day, considering everything I went through, I really felt close to my teammates and I really feel like what we accomplished, I know we didn't win it all. ... I'm really proud of how we got there and what we did once we got there.
— Rangers forward Martin St. Louis to Jim Cerny of BlueshirtsUnited.com